We are, of course, already witnessing or suffering from the early consequences of the climate crisis and that experience has produced enough anxious anticipation of worse to come to compel millions to protest. But because we are still largely gazing into disaster's crystal ball (though one we can grimly count on for its scientific accuracy), global warming as a practical matter still remains one issue, however large, among a host of other pressing issues. In 1932, the Great Depression was essentially the only issue. Nobody was foolish enough to pretend it wasn't happening. There were no Great Depression deniers. Clearly, the same cannot be said about the climate crisis.
Context is everything and in this case may account for the slower, if still irresistible, pace with which the struggle against planetary death has grown -- compared, at least, to the rapid mass mobilizations on both the left and right that characterized the era of the Great Depression. The environmental movement, like the looming crisis itself, is incremental.
Something more troubling follows from that. Governments and private elites have largely managed to evade or put off serious action, offering palliatives of little real account or, in the case of Donald Trump and his administration, working feverishly to heat the planet further for their own profit. Unfortunately, unlike the calamity of the Great Depression, which everyone could see demanded an immediate response of some sort, our calamity is elusive. One day, it's brutally apparent right where we live; on another, far off in the distant Arctic or Amazon. Global yet widely diffused, subject to variable estimated timetables of disaster, it lacks the singular impact of the Great Depression... or, at least, will lack it until perhaps it's too late.
The mercurial nature of a climate in flux has allowed the fossil-fuel industry to carry on remarkably uninterrupted. It has provided the powers-that-be more generally with a long-term reprieve. Most painfully, for decades it impeded the emergence of a mass movement over an issue that seemed to many (thanks, in part, to the efforts of that same industry) to be based on a hypothesis. Those days are apparently drawing to a close. But it remains to be seen when climate change will assume the Great Depression-style status of the dilemma that must be solved before all others, the crisis that embraces all other crises.
The Ghost in the Machine
If context is critical, so is timing. The New Deal was made possible by mass movements of insurgent industrial workers, the unemployed, farmers facing foreclosure and ruin, urban dwellers facing eviction, and small businessmen facing extinction, among others. And what lent all of the organizing and political activism of that moment immense energy and focus was the previous half-century of anti-capitalist resistance that had punctuated American life from the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century on.
Ironically, the New Deal saved capitalism by drawing on and transforming the very anti-capitalist sentiment that had pervaded American society since the days when William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic-Populist Party candidate for president in 1896, vowed that Wall Street would no longer be permitted to "crucify mankind on a cross of gold." It was that heritage, not Roosevelt's empathy for "the forgotten man," that managed to domesticate a remorseless capitalism that had long functioned without a conscience.
No similar heritage has been bequeathed to the Green New Deal. Beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, a quiescent mood settled over the country that would last a long generation. During that protracted hiatus, the anti-capitalism that had once been part of the warp and woof of American culture either withered away or was banished, along with much of the organized labor movement.
Intermittently in the last decade, however, a fresh rebelliousness has emerged as popular movements began to contest the status quo, none of them more durable than the environmental movement. At the same time, a new anti-capitalism has begun to enliven our political language, thanks to the Great Recession, Occupy Wall Street protests, and the Bernie Sanders phenomenon.
Yet something vital is missing: an insurgent labor movement. To the degree that the New Deal was driven to the left and managed to seriously restrain capitalist appetites, millions of newly organized workers made that happen. The labor movement of that era was the central axis around which all other struggles for social and economic reform pivoted. For a time, it not only defended its own interests but championed the needs and desires of all those laid low, exploited, and oppressed. Everyone from presidents to poets, industrial tycoons to the invisibles manning the nation's assembly lines, sweatshops, and factories-in-the-field had, for half a century, agreed that "the labor question" was the pre-eminent social question of the moment. The New Deal became, for better and worse, the answer.
Today, what's left of the organized labor movement (a mere 6% of the private sector workforce) is but a pale remnant of that era. More sobering still is the mordant reality that, when it comes to global warming and what (if anything) to do about it, that already parlous labor movement is split. Many of the unions in the energy and allied industries are ready to defend their vested interests in the fossil-fuel economy. They perceive the Green New Deal as a job destroyer, not a job creator.
This need not be the case. Startling numbers of trade unionists from around the world participated in the Climate Strike of September 20th, while the Green New Deal has the potential to win over a portion of the working-class that observers have too casually consigned to Trumpism.
Thanks to its promise of millions of new well-paid jobs, its concern with the health and environmental well-being of marginalized communities, and its commitment to labor's right to organize and participate in erecting and directing the new economy, the Green New Deal offers a chance to win back people who voted first for Barack Obama and then for Donald Trump. At some point they will perhaps conclude that "yes we can" and the con-man theatrics of a billionaire populist were just two versions of fake news and search for a way out of the lockbox of the neoliberal order.
For this reason, the Green New Deal may come to embody a future more humane and liberating than what its ancestor imagined possible.
Steve Fraser, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the just-published Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History. His previous books include Class Matters , The Age of Acquiescence , and The Limousine Liberal . He is a co-founder and co-editor of the American Empire Project.
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